Up to 20,000 Tennessee families can now request funds from the state’s first education voucher program, which opened applications Monday.
The program will allow parents of students with disabilities to receive public money for private services such as home-schooling, private school tuition and tutoring.
While less controversial than more sweeping voucher proposals debated in recent years, the program is set to provide an unprecedented amount of public money to individual households.
“It is important that we ensure our most vulnerable children have access to a quality education that meets their unique needs,” said Sen. Delores Gresham, the Somerville Republican who sponsored the 2014 bill authorizing the program.
Under the law, families with a child with eligible disabilities will receive an average of $6,000 annually in a special savings account. Parents can apply online, and those who qualify will receive the money in January 2017.
The Tennessee Department of Education estimates that around 20,000 students statewide have eligible disabilities, which include autism, deaf-blindness, hearing impairments, and intellectual and physical disabilities. There is no cap on the number of students who can participate.
That money comes with a trade-off, though. Families who opt for the funding must waive their rights granted by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which mandates that all students receive a “free and appropriate” public education.
The program is based on similar programs in Florida and Arizona. Upon its passage, the Tennessee bill was lauded by education advocacy organizations such as Tennessee Federation for Children and the Florida-based Foundations for Educational Excellence as giving Tennessee parents unprecedented control over their students’ educations.
“The Tennessee Department of Education strives to ensure that every Tennessee student has access to the tools they need to maximize learning,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said in a press release. “We believe this program is a unique opportunity to empower families to make decisions for their individual children as we continue our commitment to supporting all students.”
The program is in some ways similar to a proposed voucher program for low-income students that has stalled in the House of Representatives for several years. That program would allow low-income Tennessee students to apply for approximately $6,000 toward private school expenses.
More information about the Individualized Education Accounts for students with disabilities, including resources for parents, can be found on the Department of Education’s website.